By Arline T. Geronimus
On May 12, 2008, 900 ICE agents, armed with military-grade weapons and backed up by a Black Hawk helicopter, descended on the rural community of Postville, Iowa. They raided the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant and detained 389 workers, almost all of whom were Latino. Nine years later, Postville remains one of the most notorious immigration law enforcement actions in the nation’s recent history. While its legal implications have been well canvassed, the public health consequences of mass immigration policing actions like this have remained largely unexplored.
Public health researchers are well aware that social psychological forces affecting a group’s sense of belonging, value, cultural affirmation, physical and identity safety can impact health. Discrediting cues in everyday life – including those that are amply conveyed by political rhetoric painting Latino immigrants as threatening and enacted by militarized immigration raids – trigger biopsychosocial inequity that contributes to health weathering processes. Through chronic or repeated stressful experiences, our bodies undergo long-term exposure to stress hormones that cause wear and tear on the cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune systems. Such weathering increases susceptibility to infectious disease; the early onset of chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, morbid obesity, and metabolic syndrome; as well as mood disorders, disabilities, accelerated aging and early death. In school or at work these physiological processes can impair prefrontal brain processing and executive functioning and compromise academic performance and productivity among children and adults facing ethnic stereotypes.
A recent study adds the impact of militarized immigration enforcement on Latino infant health to this list of harms. In a study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, my coauthors at the University of Michigan and I exploited a natural experiment occasioned by the notorious 2008 Postville raid. The study, Change in Birth Outcomes Among Infants Born to Latina Mothers After a Major Immigration Raid (2017), provides clear, quantifiable evidence that the raid triggered an upsurge in Latino babies born too early (preterm) and too small (low birthweight) and not only among those whose mothers were directly impacted by the raid or at risk of deportation. Infants born to Latina mothers who were U.S. citizens, permanent residents or visa holders experienced these harms along with infants of mothers whose status was undocumented.
Though the Postville raid centered on the Agriprocessers plant, news of the raid quickly spread throughout Iowa, including through Spanish language newspapers. During the weeks following the raid pregnant women of Latino descent throughout the state of Iowa, including those who were U.S. citizens or nowhere near the Postville raid, experienced, on average, a 24% greater risk of their babies being born low birthweight than in the same period of weeks the previous year. Indeed, we found low birthweight prevalence was higher among infants born to Latina mothers in Iowa from May 2008, when the militarized raid took place, through January 2009 than in any other May-January period from 2003 to 2013. Non-Latina white Iowa mothers experienced no such spike in their risk of adverse birth outcome.
On a mechanistic level these adverse birth outcomes are biologically plausible as the result of the complex immune, inflammatory, and endocrine pathways that link maternal psychosocial stress to increased risk of low birthweight and preterm birth. As is well-documented by social psychologists, members of stigmatized groups enter situations with uncertainty about whether those they interact with will judge them according to prevalent stereotypes related to their group identity. The need to be vigilant for cues indicating whether or not they can trust others, be authentic or be treated fairly by those with whom they interact, requires sustained cognitive and emotional engagement that can activate prolonged physiological stress responses –especially when the stakes are high. The belief by a growing and increasingly powerful segment of the U.S. population that draconian tactics and military grade weapons and vehicles are needed to enforce immigration policy provides a compelling basis for sustained vigilance among Latino children and adults alike, including those outside the direct reach of immigration enforcement.
Our findings are stark. They point to much broader negative health implications of demonizing and criminalizing the Latino population in the U.S. More specifically, they identify the harmful impact, including to the health and development of unborn children, that results from framing Latino immigrants as dangerous and threatening For the babies, being born too early or too small increases the probability of infant death, and for those who survive, is linked to a cascade of health and developmental disadvantages that can follow them throughout their lives, impacting them, their families and communities, and increasing health care costs. Nor can we lose sight of the fact that the stress experienced by the pregnant mother to trigger these poor birth outcomes has negative consequences for her health as well. And it is a window into the ways Latinos of all ages, genders, and documentation statuses suffer negative health effects of pervasive, dramatic, and publicized threats to their ethnic group. Militarizing immigration law enforcement is neither necessary nor good for our nation’s health, including that of our babies.
Arline T. Geronimus is a professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, School of Public Health, at the University of Michigan.